County Commission unanimously approves statement encouraging people to wear face coverings when social distancing not possible

Vote follows update from county Health Officer regarding fast climb in COVID-19 cases over past weeks

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

The County Commission meets in Chambers in downtown Sarasota on June 3, with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and County Attorney Frederick Elbrecht facing the board. Commissioner Christian Ziegler participated through remote meeting technology, as he said he and his family were self-quarantining after their exposure to a friend who later tested positive for COVID-19. News Leader image

They stressed that they did not want to make the wearing of face coverings a mandate. However, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously on July 2 to encourage such action in situations where social distancing is not possible.

Commissioner Charles Hines, who brought up the topic on July 1 — during a budget workshop — ended up making the motion calling for such a statement.

Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it.

“I think it would be very powerful if we had a 5-0 vote,” Hines pointed out, “saying that Sarasota County makes this recommendation.”

During almost an hour of discussion late in the day on July 1, after staff had concluded the budget workshop presentations, Hines talked about his concern regarding the climb in the number of COVID-19 cases in the community.

On July 2, at the end of that budget workshop, Detert brought up the topic again, referencing the previous day’s discussion. As they had the previous day, board members voiced reluctance about taking any step that would indicate to the public that they were requiring the use of face masks.

Hines finally stressed that a commission vote would be helpful to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, instead of asking Lewis — as Detert did that day — simply to issue an executive order.

“I think that there is a roll for the elected officials in this,” Lewis responded.

This is the July 2 state ‘dashboard’ showing the latest COVID-19 case data for Sarasota County, through July 1. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the June 24 state ‘dashboard’ showing the latest data on COVID-19 cases in the county. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

The formal statement that won full commission support says, “All individuals in Florida should wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible.”

Hines said he modeled that on a statement the Manatee County Commission issued on June 24, which also referenced the Florida Surgeon General’s June 20 public health advisory, calling for the public to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

This is the June 20 advisory from Florida’s Surgeon General. Image courtesy State of Florida

Commissioner Alan Maio made it clear that county staff should not modify Hines’ wording in any way in announcing the board’s decision.

Chair Michael Moran also stressed to Lewis that the public notice  “shouldn’t deviate an ounce” from what Hines had proposed.

The vote came the same day that the Florida Department of Health reported 10,109 new COVID-19 cases in the state, with data showing the Sarasota County total for new cases as of July 1 was 104, followed by the previous day’s report of 117. That June 30 count was the highest since the pandemic began in March.

Chuck Henry addresses the County Commission on March 24. File image

Hines initially raised the issue of masks after Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer, appeared before the board for the July 1 presentation of the county’s Health and Human Services Department budget for the next fiscal year; Henry also leads that department.

When Henry stepped to the podium, he was wearing a mask.

“I think it’s important for your public health official to let our community know this [pandemic] is serious, and I encourage everyone to wear masks,” Henry said.

After Henry completed his budget remarks, Hines told his colleagues he would like to have a discussion about whether the board should issue an advisory to the public. “Personally,” Hines said, “I do not like government dictating to individuals on how they handle their individual lives, unless what [they are] doing negatively impacts somebody else.”

However, he continued, he had heard pushback from members of the public who felt the commission should act, given the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the state and county over the past three weeks. “Government tells you what to do all the time,” Hines pointed out, as evidenced by laws requiring the use of seat belts and vaccinations for children before they can attend public school. “We’re dealing with a national crisis, a pandemic.”

Hines noted that the only time the commissioners can discuss issues is during public meetings, as state law forbids them from talking with each other about policy matters in any other settings.

“The reason we shut government and business down was to not overwhelm our health care system and slow down the spread of this [virus],” Hines added, referring to state and county action in March and April.

Hines then asked Henry for his thoughts.

“From a public health perspective,” Henry began, “we’re looking at how things change over time. … In Sarasota County, the percentage of positive tests three weeks ago,” on a seven-day rolling average, was 1%, Henry said. Yet, the seven-day rolling average as of July 1 was above 8%; “huge increase.”

That climb is not solely a result of increased testing, Henry continued. “The number of positive cases has jumped exponentially. We have been running 50 to 60 cases a week.”

This is the Sarasota County data regarding COVID-19 testing as of June 21, along with the most recent emergency room visit data as of that report. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the data as of June 30 showing testing results for the county. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

Then, last week, Henry said, the seven-day rolling total was 510. “Huge jump there. Those are things that really concern me.”

He also noted that hospital admissions had been increasing in Sarasota County.
And even though more young people have been diagnosed with the virus in recent weeks, Henry explained, they can become ill enough to need hospital treatment. Generally, though, he pointed out, they tend to be healthier and experience less severe effects.

Nevertheless, Henry said, “The big concern for me about these new statistics [is that] clearly the virus is more widespread in our community than it has been before. So the opportunity for a vulnerable citizen” — a person age 65 and older — to come in contact with an infected individual and later need hospitalization “is much greater now. … It’s really, really important that people with risks … avoid going out and protect themselves as much as possible.”

He and his staff have always advised people that if they cannot practice social distancing — remaining at least 6 feet, or about two arm lengths — away from another person, they “should mask up, primarily to protect others … if you happen to be an asymptomatic carrier.”

About 15% of the cases in the county have been asymptomatic, Henry noted.

Moreover, the virus can spread for 48 hours from a sick person before that person shows any signs of illness, he stressed.

“This virus can grow exponentially very quickly, so that’s the concern if you talk to hospital CEOs,” Henry emphasized to the commissioners.

This is the July 2 report for Sarasota County, reflecting data verified as of that morning. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the emergency room data for Sarasota County posted by the state on July 2, as verified that morning. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

The board debate

Hines told his colleagues that, three weeks ago, he did not know anyone who had contracted the virus. “Now I know multiple people that have had it.” Although none of them had been hospitalized, he said, some still had not recovered.

Additionally, Hines told his colleagues, persons he considers “reasonable business people” have asked him to push for a county mask requirement, to help them deal with customers who do not want to wear face coverings. “Then [the business owners] can point to the government. They’re struggling.”

Both Commissioners Detert and Maio responded that they would not sit through hours of a public meeting to discuss a potential county ordinance.

Detert suggested that she and her colleagues could approve a measure similar to the one implemented in Orange County, which, she said, “strongly encouraged” all businesses to require masks and to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Coming into the July 1 meeting, Detert added, “I was ready to mandate [masks], and I was deeply concerned with the Fourth of July coming. This is going to be a nightmare.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler awaits the answer to a question during the May 20 board meeting. File image

Commissioner Christian Ziegler queried Henry about the latest statistics Ziegler had received regarding COVID-19 patients in the county’s four hospitals. The numbers showed a jump from 34 COVID-19 cases last week to 62 as of that day.

Henry responded that a number higher than 65 “is the first trigger point” for hospitals to start implementing expansion measures to accommodate more COVID-19 patients. “We don’t want to wait till we’re at the back end to respond or we’ll be way behind the curve.”

Henry further noted that the median time between hospitalization and death is about 16 days, though death could come as fast as one day after a person grows ill, up to 42 days, based on data he and his staff have reviewed.

In response to another question from Ziegler, Henry explained that public health officials and physicians are “trying to understand the mortality of this virus … as rapidly as possible.”

“I’m not an anti-mask person,” Ziegler pointed out. Still, he said, “I think it’s tough when you have the government come in and force [the use of face coverings].”

“I can’t see myself, frankly, mandating masks,” Commissioner Maio said. When he goes into public places, he continued, he does wear a mask.

However, he added, “I don’t like the hysteria that I see creeping into some of our citizens.”

Maio did stress that the virus is not a hoax or, as some people call it, “the flu on steroids. That’s nonsense.”

“I am very much in favor of education and encouragement and promoting the use of masks,” Chair Moran told his colleagues, “but mandating and enforcement just is a step too far for me.”